THERE are, by conservative estimates, over two billion internet users in the world today. That's 34 per cent of the world's population online.
Technology is changing how we live and work, the speed and pace of change is without precedent.
Look at the numbers: 15 years ago there was no Google, 10 years ago there was no Skype, nine years ago there was no Facebook and seven years ago there was no Twitter. Yet today all of these technologies are embedded into our daily lives and indeed are playing very significant roles in social revolutions taking place in many countries across the globe. Their biggest impact is on business models and how we work.
Anyone who has a website or a presence on the internet can now conduct business anywhere in the world 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is providing huge economic opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs the world over. Ireland's digital economy is growing 10 times faster than the traditional economy – and firms that engage in online trading are twice as likely to be creating jobs as firms that aren't.
Here in Ireland, 2,500 Googlers work with advertising agencies and companies, big and small, in 67 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Day after day we see how powerful a tool the internet really is as a driver of economic activity – and our work with Irish businesses helps them understand the online opportunity and to manage more successfully their business on the internet.
Building on this incredible wealth of knowledge and skills, in September we will officially open our Digital Innovation Centre here in Dublin which will bring together SMEs, large customers, agencies and start-ups, from all over Europe, as well as Irish businesses, to upskill them in advertising, sales and marketing in the digital era.
The range of Google products available to help businesses online are many and varied (and many of them are free), but for Irish businesses I would recommend using the following:
Google Places: One of the biggest (and I think most under-rated) phenomena of the internet, this is how people now search for businesses online, through desktop and mobile devices, more than anywhere else, including traditional methods such as the telephone directory.
So, the first step to successful trading is to make sure that when people search for your business it can be found.
It's important to make sure your local business listing can be easily found on Google.ie and Google Maps.
Google Places enables a business to create a business listing for free and it takes just a few minutes. It's also an easy way to maintain an online presence even if you don't have a website.
Google AdWords: This is used by businesses of all sizes all over the world to advertise their goods or services in a cost-effective way.
By running advertising alongside internet searches, sellers present their products or services to the right audience at the right time. AdWords is a pay-per-click model – which means if the consumer doesn't click or interact with the advert, you don't pay.
An advantage over other forms of advertising is that AdWords enables very high targeting of your ad campaign. Ads can be targeted to specific locations, certain times of the day and particular languages depending on who your customers are.
What I like most about Google AdWords is its transparency. Businesses can generate free reports on their advertising campaigns – for example, which ad copy has the highest conversion rate, or how many times a chosen search term generates clicks through to their website.
This enables the business owner to make changes mid- campaign to increase the return on ad spend. Google's dedicated AdWords Small Business Centre has a step by step guide to setting up your AdWords account.
Google Analytics: Every business – whether a butcher's shop in the main street of Charleville or a multinational corporation – needs to understand their customers and their behaviours. Being online is no different.
Google Analytics is a free tool that helps a business to understand how visitors interact with their website – and with this information they can make necessary changes to their website so that it is more productive. The Analytics tool allows a company to analyse what their customers are looking for, what pages are being visited most often on their website or mobile app and where visitors are dropping off in the sales process.
Changes can then be made to convert visits to sales or to increase new business leads.
For example, a toy company recognised the demand for paddling pools in the current run of hot weather, put their product on their home page where it could be easily seen (as opposed to having it listed under 'inflatable toys') and immediately increased their online sales.
Google Apps: This provides businesses with web-based email, calendar, and documents that allow you and your employees to work from anywhere. Cloud-based applications mean you don't need to invest in a server or pay the costs of running one. They also allow for greater collaboration between employees, increasing productivity.
G+ for business: Google+ Pages give your business a home online, and let you build relationships with your customers. More and more companies are using Google+ Hangouts to connect with customers and when customers search on Google, the results may include relevant posts, photos, and videos from your Google+ page, which is really important from a search engine marketing perspective as social is integrated into everything that Google does.
YouTube Channel: YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world and having a YouTube channel allows a business to show its products in action.
This is particularly useful for companies with limited physical distribution channels, including those who mostly sell over the internet.
Some business people use YouTube to build their reputation as an expert in a field. This might include uploading video tutorials or short video tips, as well as linking to other experts' videos that relate to their area of interest.
The big advantage of business online is that it is a world without borders, providing businesses that otherwise would not have the resources to set up offices overseas, to sell in export markets.
There are some specific Google tools to help you expand into export markets.
Global Market Finder: If you're looking to export your products and wondering what markets to target, this tool will give an idea of the search volume for your top keywords in international markets.
It automatically translates keywords related to a firm's products or services into 56 languages, ranks countries with the highest monthly search volumes for the terms, and provides a "suggested bid" for your AdWords campaign.
Not only does it show you the monthly average of how many searches have been undertaken for that key term, it also suggests top translated keywords, and tells you whether local customers have also been searching in English or another language.
Google Consumer Barometer: What role do online sources play in a person's journey from consideration to actual purchase? This interactive tool, helps quantify the role online media plays in consumer purchasing decisions.
The tool includes data from 39 countries across 36 different product categories, offering a worldwide selection of consumer insight. A valuable tool for those exporting.
Localisation tools: If you want to sell successfully in export markets, it helps to do so in the native language of the country you are targeting.
Google tools like Website Translator and Translator toolkit can be used to adapt your site, marketing materials and adverts to the local languages of your target markets.
Information is a very valuable commodity and the internet puts vast amounts of data at our fingertips. I am constantly amazed at how reluctant many Irish firms have been to embrace the internet and recognise the vast marketplace and many millions of consumers they can access at the click of their mouse.
The web is far more than a sales channel; it is a means for companies to market themselves better. Many small companies that may previously have only been able to afford to advertise in business directories, if at all, suddenly have a new, inexpensive and effective route to market.
And the big benefit of doing business on the web is that you don't need to be physically close to your customers or markets to succeed.
It has the capacity to make business truly location-independent. Innovation and entrepreneurship, therefore, become far more important than mere physical location. This is particularly relevant to Ireland which, as a small, open, export-led economy, needs to embrace every possible means of engaging with its customers across the globe.